The Corner

White House

Entropy in the Executive

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that “Trump has faced an unprecedented wave of insubordination by his own White House staff, and he has often met that with an unthinkable, unleaderly passivity.” The worst example of these tendencies came in Syria, when Trump said we were withdrawing and his underlings effectively overruled him. Dougherty goes on to warn that a Biden presidency could operate similarly.

I think that the characterization of the problem is slightly but importantly off, and in a way that underestimates how Trump-specific it is. It’s natural to talk about the dysfunction in the administration as a matter of “insubordination”: I’ve done it myself. But when Trump himself habitually acts as though his words are idle, is it so wrong for his employees to follow that lead? He has been known to express unhappiness at their performance. Has he done so based on their treating what could be interpreted as statements of policy as jokes or trial balloons instead? If they do gamely attempt to start acting on his remarks and tweets, how sure can they be that he won’t reverse course and disavow them?

Biden would have difficulty in exerting his will over the executive branch, as all presidents do. Perhaps he would cede power and responsibility to his vice president, or to others. It seems unlikely that he would settle into the current president’s frequent role as a kind of outside commentator on his own administration.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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